tv Tavis Smiley WHUT November 3, 2009 8:30am-9:00am EST
tavis: good evening. i'm tavis iley. tonight a rare conversation with a legendary singer and songwriter. the musician became a household name after being in the classic film "a star is born." he's out with a new c.d. we're glad you joined us, kris kristofferson coming up. >> there's so many things that wal-mart is lookinging forward to doing. we're looking forward to
building stronger communities and relationships. because of your help, the best is yet to come. >> nationwide insurance proudly supporters tavis smiley. >> tavis and nationwide insurance, working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. >> nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs stations from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] 6 ♪ tavis: please and delighted and honored to welcome kris kristofferson, the legendary singer and songwriter enjoyed so much success, including of course his golden globe winning performance in a star is born. he was a member of the legendary
group, the highway men. and waylon jennings and willie nelson and johnny cash, he's out with a c.d. called "closer to the bone." he's r-hears the video from the title track. ♪ heading to the highway ♪ rolling like a river ♪ soars like an eagle ♪ skipping like a stone ♪ from the heartbeat ♪ nothing but the truth now ♪ ♪ everything is sweeter ♪ ♪ closer to the bone tavis: i want to ask you what this song is about after i tell you it is an lower to have you on the program. >> well, i appreciate it. tavis: after i tell the audience
what you leaned over and whispered to me when that video start d playing. >> i forgot already. tavis: he leaned over and said, talk about musicically challenged. what did you mean by that? >> i heard you talking about it with -- with -- with tim. tavis: tim mcgraw. >> and if you think tim was challenging, my voice -- is a step down from there. tavis: what do you make of the fact that -- and i hear this in -- in some modesty and honesty in this, i think that you don't think that yours is the best voice. what do you make of the success you had over the years with this voice that isn't the greatest out there? >> i think it is the -- the fact that i was a -- the writer of thsong. if i weren't a writer, i'm sure
they wouldn't allow me to stand up there -- when i first went to nashville, they didn't even have me singing my own demo records. they would hire somebody with a better voice. and eventually i -- i got to do it just because my -- the record company -- i mean the publishing house was going broke. so -- they couldn't buy some of these -- [laughter] >> but -- i'm grateful for the -- tavis: were you ever offended or insulted. if so, how did you get past the feeling when they wouldn't let you sing your own stuff? >> well, i think probably the same audacity that you had me go there in the first place, when
-- when i was programmed at the time to go in a different direction, i was still in the army, and -- and supposed to be a -- a teacher of a -- at west point in my next assignment, but -- but i -- i decided instead to go to nashville and i was -- i guess never really offended by the fact that they didn't want me to sipping my own songs because i just loved being a songwriter so much. and -- tavis: i'm going to move around. you lived a rich and full life. forgive me for bouncing around. i'm going to try to make this make sense of the life you lived. >> you got your work cut out for you. tavis: let's see how good i am. your song writing, first of all. i was astounded in -- in the research for our conversation, to learn that -- over now, 500
ar tis and counts, almost 500 artists have sung your lyrics. what do you make of that? that's an 0 stounding number. 500 artists. that you wrote. >> i'll take their word for it. i couldn't -- right now. but no, that is -- it is -- it is one of the blessings of being a songwriter is that you get it hear your work interpred by so many different peopl a guy who writes short stories or novels doesn't get to do that. and -- and so, you have somebody like george jones or -- or -- merle haggard, you know, or willie nelson getting out there and making, making something that is particlely you but it is
partially you, but it definitely has another artist's fingerprints on it there. tavis: how did you know, how when did you know this was your gift, that you had this gift that you had to use it? how did that -- come to you? >> i had been making up songs since i was a littleid. first one i can think of is on this record. tavis: the bonus track. i saw that. you wrote that when you are 11. >> 11 years old but i never really thought that was -- a way to make a living or to have a distinguished career until -- until it got to be kind of desperate, i think, when i was -- i had been in the army for five years and -- and through more schooling than i thought people were supposed t and -- and i finally just --
just figured it was the way to get my heart -- my heart was leaning anyway for -- that was, it was, when i went to nashville and started hanging around with some of those singer-song writers -- tf just such an exciting creative atmosphere, i loved it. tavis: it was exciting and creative for you. your parents didn't see it that way. you were -- as your fans know, again, because you have been around for so hong doing such great work, it is hard to remember all of this stuff until you started reading about kris kristofferson, but before the world knew you as a songwriter, you were a rhodes scolar and golden glove boxer and captain of every team, and a west point opportunity and with all of that, you decide to get in your car and go to nashville. mom and dad weren't happy. were they? >> no.
tavis: how unhappy? >> well, i think my -- my mother was -- was embarrassed. said don't communicate with our family anymore or our friends. and my -- my father didn't feel as strongly but he -- added at the bottom of the letter, you know, that goes for me too. and they just thought that i was throwing away all of the gift that is came with being a rhodes scholar and whatever. you know that i was -- it was embarrassing to them. tavis: you later by your own admission. i'll let you tell the story. you later reconciled with your parents. but 25 years, a quarter of a century goes by without communicating with your mother. they meant that, don't
communicate with us. they were embarrassed, 25 years go by and y don't talk to your mom. tell me about how you navigated through those 25 years, here you are struggling trying to pursue your dreams and your mamma says i don't want to talk to you. >> in a way it made it easy, because i didn't have to worry about trying to please anybody els else. i -- i had nothing to lose. it is probably where i got the line "freedom, just another word for it" but i was so involved and so in love with what i was doing that i -- i never felt sorry for myself. but -- i don't think it was a whole 25 years. before we talked because i can remember them coming around it
where they really were my -- where my mother really liked johnny cash and we all grew out of it. tavis: you mentioned johnny cash. and johnny cash is really the one that made you realize this is what i want to do. tell me how that happened. about johnny cash and you. >> well, john was -- was a hero up in the ranks of people like hank williams. and johnny cash was -- was to meet him in person was electrifying. and di that when i was -- i went to nashville, when i was still in the army, the first time. and -- and spent two weeks of a leave there and on the and onthe last night i was there i shook hands with johnny cash backstage at the opera and it changed my life.
even if i couldn't make it as a songwriter, i thought i could write about -- being backstage with johnny cash, john was somebody i never lost my respect for. he was somebody who was always larger than life. willie and i are in a different place than that, but john and i always seemed like he should be on mt. rushmore. and willie should too. tavis: you're hanging out. i think you'll understand this question. when you hang out with people of that caliber, people who are iconic in their own right, and who are larger than life, in that rarified air, in that space, how do you find yourself?
how do you find your own style? >> well, i think it probably was -- was five years before anybody was recording the songs. after i committed myself to that life, just -- just the feedback that i was getting from other song writers and from -- from people like willie and johnny cash, who i idolized. it was -- for me right now, it is hard to understand how i could handle it, because these were my heroes and the the next thing you know, i'm standing next to them every night on stage. okay. and i'm amazed that i wasn't -- that i was up there. because i had been their janitor, every one of them.
that's really probably at this point in my life, i feel like it is -- the blessing that i have had to -- that i really respect and idolized like muhammad ali have become my friends. >> it raises the philosophical question of, what do you do when your hero, your heroes become your friends? >> well, fortunately they all live up to what i thought of. every one of them has been better than i could have ever expected. them to be. and i'll always -- like i always feel that way about muhammad ali and john and willie and everything, they just -- and roger miller was another -- he was -- when your heroes turn out to be your friends, that's about as good as it gets.
tavis: why muhamd ali, i get johnny carson -- johnny cash -- i want to be as good as he is someday. i get johnny cash and willie nelson and from my perspective, muhammad ali, but why do you -- why put ali in that category? >> i had always admired -- i saw him first in rome when he was fighting as light heavy weight for the olympics there and he had always -- i have always been a boxing fan. but he -- he was more. and he was -- had so much integrity that he gave away a couple of the best years of his life that nobody could ever pay him back because of what he believed in. and this happened to be the same
thing i did at a time. he just said, we hadn't got anything against those viet kong and he -- he was willing to take a couple of years out of his best time and give it up. then he cake back and won. >> what -- what -- i'm curious, i'm always fascinated by people who over the course of their lives have discovered what it means to be in love with every day people, to fall in love with humanity. and to express that through whatever their work and calling is, in your case, your writing, your music. and what do you think that came from for you? this love? this reveling in humanity? >> i don't know. i -- my values were probably shaped by my parents, and by -- the life that we lived going around a lot -- i grew up in a
lot of different places because my father was a pilot and they moved around a lot bup i -- i never really heard it phrased quite like that. tavis: i raise that because it is one thing to wanto play music for people, but you're talking about -- let me say about this, your answer about ali, and i'm listening to you talk about ali, and ali is a courageous figure. but in your own lane, where your musical side is, and you were taking positions on things that weren't popular. i'm trying to figure out where that love of fighting for people, fighting against injustice of all kinds, where that came from? >> it probably came from -- from what i -- what i learned, from people like william blake and different creative people who i
respected. but like muhammad ali, i have always respected his stands. you though. it was totally unselfish and for other people. and you try to live up to that. what makes it hard for me to answer you right now is -- everything i s sounds kind of self-serving, like saying, well, i was that humble and -- and self-sacrificing, but i -- i -- i i have always felt like what i do carries an obligation with it because you have a -- a chance to change people's minds by -- by your craft. or whatever it is you do. >> that's the answer. you got that. >> i did? >> yeah. >> knew it was in this. >> i waited for you to push it out. >> and thank you for indulging
me on that. i was just the other day, the other week when this c.d. dropped, i couldn't wait to get it. i literally ran to the store myself. i wanted to hear barbra streisand's new c.d. and i'm in love with it. all of these years have passed now, when you look back now with this in the rear view, i don't want to color the question. you look back on a star is born, you think what, all of these years later about the project? >> god bless barbara streisand, she brought -- changed my life. she -- we had a lot of battles on that -- both of us fighting for some fort of integrity that we thoug we had to represent as we were -- we were doing characters that did what we did in real life. and she -- she gave him this little thing that somebody stole later, but it -- it was it was written out on a -- on an
etching and it said "a star is born" let it be an easy birth. and that was very nice of her. but she definitely brought me to an audience that was much wider than mine before that. >> let's go back to the music. tell me in your own words about the c.d.. >> this again is like the last one i did with dop watts. don is a -- is a -- ben trying to revive my career for 30 years. he is -- he's done a good job of it. but -- in particular, it was like the album we did before this, which was -- i thought it was a demo session because it
was just me and the guitar and harmonica. this is pretty much what it is here. plus, a couple of guys on a couple of songs. and i would particularly -- i guess particularly glad i got steven bruden on this, i think this was the last album he worked on. but stephen worked with me -- for -- for -- since he was a little boy. and -- and at over 30 years. and -- and he died shortly after this. was made. so i'm glad i got him on there. he's singing on a couple. tavis: i ask you to explain "closer to the bone" at the top of the conversation. tell us about that song in particular. the title track. >> well, it -- i hate the guy. i hate to disct the songs.
i thought -- tavis:let me stop you. you don't have to thans question, but you do have to answer this one. tell me why, even though you're a songwriter, you wrote that song. >> i feel the songs are a gift that came from some place that i can't -- i can't understand and i can't really explain what came out, you know, creatively. i -- i -- i know there are song writers that could have answered this question a lot better than i can. but i have never taken a technical attitude toward songs and the mechanics of them. the emotion to me, and it is
just -- it doesn't make sense to me to cut them apart. anymore than it would have a baby. tavis: because i accept your answer, you do not have to explain "closer to the bone." i'll play it and listen to it. how about that? >> i would really appreciate that. tavis: i don't want mr. kristofferson to do something he doesn't want to do. i respect the answer for why you don't like cutting something up. i get that. but i hope you would do me this favor, since you brought your guitar i hope you strum something for me. will you do that go me? >> sure. 1kwr50 i'm going to say good -- tavis: i'm going to say good night. and i'll let you play. that's the show for the night, the nude c.d. is called "closer to the bone."
you can access our radio broadcast at pbs.org. i'll see you next time, until then, thank you for watching. ♪ ain't it kind of funny ♪ ♪ ain't it just a way ♪ ♪ ain't you getting better ♪ returning out of time ♪ making pretty music ♪ closer to your feelings ♪ working on the reasons ♪ running on the rimes ♪ heading for the highway ♪ rolling like a river ♪ so soaring like an eagle ♪ and skipping like a stone ♪
nothing from the heart beat ♪ ♪ nothing but the truth now ♪ ♪ everything is sweeter ♪ closer to the bone >> that fly is aiming for you. [laughter] [applause] >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. tavis: i'm tavis smiley, join me next time. with the oscar winning duo. that's next time, we'll see you then. >> there's so many things that wal-mart is looking forward to doing, like helping people live better, but mostly, we're looking forward to helping build stronger communities and relationships because of your help, the best is yet to come.